Today I want to spend a little time on the subject of Buddhist chanting. On the few occasions when I’ve met other “western” Buddhists (or maybe not Buddhists but who are exploring Buddhism) at a temple or vihara, the difficulty in learning the meaning behind the chants has been a significant concern mentioned to me. Many teachings are encapsulated in chants, and for the Theravada these chants are almost always performed in Pali. This is, of course, the obvious result of a long and established oral tradition.
I have learned a little Pali (not enough to make conversation; I’m no expert) and have grown fairly comfortable with several chants both in Pali and English. I currently use materials offered by Metta Forest Monastery (I generally just call it “Wat Metta”)… on their Dhamma Talk site one can download both audio and PDF materials related to the Buddha’s teachings and the practice of chanting.
Of course, you can find chants in a few other languages; I’ve heard Chinese, Vietnamese, and Tibetan on different occasions, but these have all been at temples or monasteries of a Mahayana or Vajrayana tradition. Surely there are exceptions, but I have come across very few in the last two years.
For this subject I have created a short (21 minute) video with a brief introduction of myself and a 17.5 minute Puja, entirely in English (which I will embed below). I’ve practiced chanting both in Pali and English for nearly two years, but posting a video of it is a first for me. [For my friends who met me a few weeks ago at the Sri Lankan Vihara (if you follow the blog): these chants very closely model that which was chanted by the monk at our meditation session.] If you watch the video, you should note that the examples I chose are not all that dissimilar to hymns sung at conservative church service. If it seems useful, I can always record a few other example chants.
I chant in a monotone as opposed to most monk or nuns you might encounter at various temples. The reason for this is twofold: First, the monks of the Theravada are often native-speakers of a language in which the tone of voice seems to actually represent part of the meaning of your speech — in other words, they’ve learned from birth to sound the way they do, so it is natural to them. Secondly, it is my current understanding from the Vinaya (which I have not read entirely, mind you) that chanting should not be done in a sing-song voice because it lends oneself to attachment to the sound. It is thus my personal preference to maintain an even tone when chanting. Don’t let that unnecessarily influence you in your practice, but feel free to keep it in the back of your mind for later, should you feel the thought has merit.
I have found that chanting is an excellent way to prepare the mind for meditation, and it is my experience that placing my focus on the meaning of the chants helps to push aside defiling thoughts, at least temporarily. Anything that offers even temporary relief from one’s own mental chaos has to be good, right?
I make it a point to practice in this way every morning (sometimes in Pali) often switching out the segment on Chastened Dispassion (part three) with some other discourse. Sometimes the ritual will exceed 30 minutes, while other times I’m compelled to be onto other tasks in as little as 10… so one can be quite variable with the practice and should not feel forced to do it a certain way every single time. In fact, I’d argue that if you feel forced, you’re doing something wrong; don’t let it become yet another source of stress!
I’ll write more on this (and other related subjects) as I find time. If you feel so inclined, please post questions in the comments section so that I might reply here and/or consider the thoughts for my next post. Please be well, friends.